March 15, 2016

Love and duty of, and for, creative children

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:01 pm by chavisory

I started reading this article (How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off) wanting so badly to like what I think it’s trying to say, but just wound up so annoyed at many of the assumptions and implications the author makes in order to say it.

It’s true—you can’t program a child to become creative. You can’t engineer that kind of success. Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.

But Grant is kind of just imposing this duty on a certain set of kids in a different way—implying strongly that the right outcome for those kids is to become a revolutionary or visionary leader in their fields. I don’t think that’s fair, either.

Grant also seems unfamiliar with some of the realities of being a gifted child. Whether someone suffers from social or emotional problems, or is kept from learning to be original by adult expectation or fear of failure, aren’t the only factors in whether or not they’ll grow up to change the world. There’s more to the equation than that, and not all of it is even wrong.

I’m going to go point by point:

  1. “They learn to read at age 2, play Bach at 4, breeze through calculus at 6, and speak foreign languages fluently by 8.”

This is not the trajectory that probably most genius follows, though. Particularly for twice-exceptional kids, probably including Einstein, who Grant keeps quoting approvingly. This describes a tiny number of child prodigies, and doesn’t include most people who grow up to be accomplished, creative adults…many of whom spoke or read late, have no particular musical or mathematical talent, or were simply unspectacular at school until they found their own groove later on.

Underscoring Grant’s ignorance here, he talks about giftedness, creativity, genius, and prodigy status almost interchangeably throughout the piece. But they’re not the same thing. Giftedness is widely accepted to entail a high capacity for creative problem-solving, but most gifted children are not prodigies. Prodigies are not necessarily geniuses, nor particularly creative, nor geniuses prodigies. Many impressively creative children are never identified as gifted, indeed are often perceived as academically lacking. All of those things can manifest very differently in different children under different circumstances (and historically, many of the ways in which they’ve been identified have been problematic, to say the least, on multiple levels).

And none of them equate to limitless capability. Any ability =/= every ability. This is a common misconception about academically gifted children in particular. The fact of our advanced abilities in one regard is misapplied to argue that we should be able to do anything else we really want to do (or someone else wants us to do).  This is especially obnoxious for twice-exceptional kids, who have to expend a lot of cognitive resources on navigating the world in ways that most people don’t. In some ways, those struggles can spur creative development. In some ways, though, they’re just draining.

Everything’s not just easy for a very talented child.

  1. “Their classmates shudder with envy; their parents rejoice at winning the lottery.”

They often don’t, though. Classmates often demean and ostracize precocious or conspicuously different kids. Their parents often misunderstand and undervalue their talents, struggle to relate to them, and fear not being able to meet their needs. Siblings and teachers resent them. Schools tacitly allow bullying and obstruct opportunities for acceleration. Kids with IEP’s are told they’re not eligible for honors or AP classes.

In a recent case in Canada, two brothers were both admitted to a prestigious arts high school. The boys’ home district didn’t blink at transferring the required funding for the younger brother, but refused to do so for the older brother, because his educational funding stream was disability-related.

How many brilliant kids does this happen to whose families simply don’t have the resources or social networks to fight back like the Wrays could?

Particularly gifted or creative kids just aren’t automatically given the supports they should have; they’re often being actively thwarted.

  1. “But to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

This is insulting. How are we defining a “whimper” for these purposes?  Why is the most concerning thing about a gifted child’s life the way their career ends, anyway?  Why do you get to declare the outcome of an artist’s career a “whimper” because they didn’t go as far as you wanted them to?

  1. “Consider the nation’s most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students, the Westinghouse Talent Search…From its inception in 1942 until 1994, the search recognized more than 2000 precocious teenagers as finalists. But just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.”

Quite frankly, so what? What percentage of anybody makes the National Academy of Sciences? There is one Nobel Prize awarded per year in a tiny handful of fields. That leaves the vast majority of gifted researchers and creators doing necessary, valuable work who will never win a Nobel Prize. That’s not a meaningful benchmark of whether or not they fulfilled their potential as human beings or as scientists or artists.

“For every Lisa Randall who revolutionizes theoretical physics, there are many dozens who fall far short of their potential.”

Why is “revolutionizing theoretical physics” and “falling far short of [your] potential” a meaningful juxtaposition? Those two extremes don’t accurately represent the possibilities available.

Maybe the Westinghouse Search just isn’t a very good predictor of future paradigm-shifting achievement. How does he know that Talent Search finalists who don’t go on to revolutionize a field aren’t in fact fulfilling their potential, but just in ways that are harder to quantify? That don’t win the shiny awards? Maybe their potential just wasn’t what you thought it was.

And anyway, why is anyone particularly obligated to always pursue to the highest possible level the subject they were good at in high school? Does a gifted teenage scientist not have a right to give up something that they find is no longer in line with their own goals or desires?

  1. “The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores.”

I spend a lot of time trying to explain this in other contexts

Different skills are different skills.

Technical virtuosity is a worthy talent—it just isn’t the same thing as compositional originality. Maybe a technically masterful musician isn’t an innovative composer because they don’t work at it—or because they don’t work that way. Accepting that isn’t a sin. We need original composers, and we need highly skilled musicians to execute and interpret their work. One of those things is not morally superior. That it’s relatively rare for someone to be both is possibly not actually wrong.

We have a common language of music because most musicians aren’t going around reinventing the rules of music. That’s okay. (And meanwhile, a lot of young musicians not identified as especially gifted as toddlers are composing their own original works.)

  1. “They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights.”

But you don’t usually produce new insights by focusing your energies on producing new insights, but rather on solving the really unglamorous, day to day, moment to moment problems, and seeing something differently.

I have to tell you here about my favorite piece of paperwork.

It’s a character/scene breakdown. It was the result of a spreadsheet tweak by an unpaid intern PA. It was the third in a series of attempts to satisfy a director who didn’t like either of my prior versions. And he didn’t like that one, either.

But it was simple and brilliant. I would never have come up with it; I have a tendency towards over-thinking. It eliminated an entire layer of translation from the problem. And it has persistently improved the quality of my work in every way, for every show, ever since. It saves time, it saves anxiety, and it saves scheduling mistakes, which saves money; it became almost every piece of organizational paperwork I use while stage managing a whole other multi-media project.

It’s just a rearranged Excel spreadsheet. That’s how unspectacular creative innovation can look. We weren’t sitting there focused on producing new insights; we were trying not to get snapped at by an unhappy director again. And we failed.

But small breakthroughs like this accrue, hourly, daily, in every creative field, into major shifts in thinking over time.

  1. “In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet ‘only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,’ laments the psychologist Ellen Winner.”

…And what of the people who do become revolutionary adult creators who weren’t identified as particularly gifted in childhood? What of the disabled and outsider artists, some of whom are supported and represented by places like the Creative Growth Art Center, but some of whose work is never identified until after their deaths or ever at all, who spend the majority of their lives assumed to be categorically incapable by everyone around them?

Where’s the lament for that injustice, when we talk about lost creative promise?

A more interesting question might be, what fraction of revolutionary adult creators was overlooked or written off as untalented in childhood? Or told that they shouldn’t pursue what they did? How many Nobel Prize winners weren’t extremely impressive young children, and what does that tell you?

Again, it looks to me more like the frameworks we have for identifying conspicuous childhood ability just aren’t very good at predicting adult achievement.

  1. “Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves.”

But why should “making waves” be a goal unto itself?

I have seen some of the worst efforts at advocacy or activism born from a desire to “make waves” without having a deep understanding of the topics involved. A lot of acquiring that deep understanding, in order to effect sustainable, lasting change in a field, can look like years and years of absorbing existing knowledge and doing unglamorous work without making waves just for the sake of making waves.

Novices absolutely can make important contributions and insights. They also can crash and burn, or do more harm than good, when they don’t know what in the fuck they’re doing or the history of what they’re trying to do. Context matters. Revolution isn’t always the greatest possible good.

And like, we need gifted surgeons. We need brilliant defense attorneys! To become one can take everything that even the most gifted student has to give. Someone who gives their very best to healing their patients or defending their clients isn’t under-performing because they don’t necessarily decide to make overhauling the system their own highest priority. The problems entrenched in the health care and criminal justice systems have thwarted many of the greatest minds that have taken them on for many years.

And again, there are professionals who actually do this kind of advocacy for systemic change. Just because most people don’t doesn’t mean that the people who should be doing it aren’t. But skill at neurosurgery and skill at lobbying or activism are not the same thing. Different skills are different skills. The fact that the health care and criminal justice systems still harbor massive waste and injustice is more evidence of those issues being very big and very entrenched than of isolated child geniuses not reaching their full creative potential.

I also imagine a lot of highly accomplished doctors and lawyers might take issue with the framing that really they could be doing so much more to reform the system if only their youthful sense of originality hadn’t been quashed. That’s a judgment of somebody else’s life that I’d be very wary of making without an intimate familiarity with what they do and why. Maybe they’re dodging their true potential. Maybe they’re making canny decisions about work/life balance. Maybe they’re actually doing the best they can.

*

There is room for both broad and narrow approaches to art, science, and social problems. Neither is more genuinely creative. The nature of the problem matters a lot.

Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty. So what is all this presumed duty of gifted kids to grow up to be as creative as you think we should be? To solve the problems you want us to solve for you? (If you know so much about what needs to be done, why don’t you go do it and stop foisting your existential disappointment on us?)

Maybe a precocious child’s actual true potential is not the same as your prejudice about their true potential, but that doesn’t make it actually inferior.

Parents shouldn’t drive their highly talented children like achievement robots not because it short-circuits the kind of creative development we really want from them, but because it’s objectifying and cruel.

I just don’t think the goal should be making sure more Westinghouse Talent Search finalists go on to win Nobel Prizes, as opposed to making sure that all children are more able to live their fullest, freest lives. I am so much more troubled by the thought of how many kids—whether formally identified as gifted or not, whether conspicuous musical or linguistic prodigies or not—have their promise and talents thwarted by poverty, by broken educational and criminal justice systems, by ableism and endemic racism, than I am by statistics about a relatively tiny number of prodigies who don’t do what some professor of management thinks they should be doing with their adult lives. And those problems are all of our responsibility to contribute to solving, not to put on the shoulders of singular children to fix for us.

We’re not entitled to the accomplishment of any child, and we squander the talents of too many others.

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3 Comments »

  1. alexforshaw said,

    Excellent post! The article you reference is hardly unique in its treatment of this subject, and I think you’re spot on in your countering of its main points.

    As a gifted child a lot was expected of me; I felt it even if it was rarely articulated and internalized the pressure to excel. It made me perfectionist, bordering on obsession in my drive to be the best. And it meant I was never able to handle failure. The shame and guilt I felt when I didn’t meet my own expectations were crushing and I would avoid taking on tasks where I didn’t feel confident of a successful outcome.

    So, I would definitely say that my own experience has been that such pressure is harmful and can easily become a cause of anxiety and depression. I wrote about my perfectionism in the past tense, but it is still with me even though I have managed over the years to lessen its effects on my state of mind. I still find it very difficult to admit failure.

  2. Dani Alexis said,

    Thank you for this entire post, but especially for this line:

    Technical virtuosity is a worthy talent—it just isn’t the same thing as compositional originality.

    I spent my teen years in a morass of self-loathing and shaming by others because, while I was an excellent instrumentalist (and still am), I’m a dismal composer. Teachers and my parents would praise me as having “great potential” on the one hand and take me to task for not being “more original” on the other.

    (I’m not talking about judges evaluating my interpretation, none of whom actually had anything to say about my originality – I’m talking about adults whose job it was to support me instead tearing me down for not being the kind of musician they thought I “should” be.)

    I ended up not only not being a full-time musician, but not getting a fine arts degree at all. Grant would probably call that a failure, but attitudes like his conflating instrumentalist talent with composing talent are precisely what contribute to “failures” like this one.

  3. Paisley said,

    I really wish people would get away from the idea of people having one specific “full potential” that can be objectively determined and which one is morally obligated (no matter what they might actually want themselves) to “live up to.” I don’t think that living up to one’s full potential necessarily is the same thing as being happy and living a good life. I mean, someone who has the potential to be a great theoretical physicist might be happier running their own restaurant, or something. And why is it automatically assumed that this person’s full potential is being a physicist? Why couldn’t running their own restaurant be an example of living up to their full potential? Why is it automatically assumed that living up to one’s full potential means having the most “impressive” career?


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